Friday, September 19, 2014

Denton Welch in Digital Format

Denton Welch is one of those novelists whose work you read, sink into, marvel at and just live through and then, if you are like me, put them away for a while and every few years go back to them and have the same wonderful feeling of discovery and renewed appreciation. For me, Forrest Reid is another novelist in this category. The rather fun Galley Beggar Press is producing what look to be decent editions of Welch's three novels as a start in their Digital Classics series. Their blurbs are also very good. If you are happy reading digital books and you haven't read him then there's no recommending Welch highly enough and, if you have read him before... is it time that you, like me, slipped back into his world again?

Galley Press blurbs below their covers

First published in 1945, In Youth Is Pleasure recounts a summer in the life of 15-year-old Orvil Pym, who is holidaying with his father and brothers in a Kentish hotel, with little to do but explore the countryside and surrounding area.

‘I don’t understand what to do, how to live’: so says the 15-year-old Orvil – who, as a boy who glories and suffers in the agonies of adolescence, dissecting the teenage years with an acuity, stands as a clear (marvelously British) ancestor of The Catcher In The Rye’s Holden Caulfield.

A delicate coming-of-age novel, shot through with humour, In Youth Is Pleasure, has long achieved cult status, and earned admirers ranging from Alan Bennett to William Burroughs, Edith Sitwell to John Waters. ‘Maybe there is no better novel in the world that is Denton Welch’s In Youth Is Pleasure,’ wrote Waters. ‘Just holding it my hands… is enough to make illiteracy a worse crime than hunger.’

Maiden Voyage is Denton Welch’s debut novel, a frankly autobiographical account of a short period in his life when – at the age of 16 – he ran away from his English boarding school, before being sent back to Shanghai to live with his businessman father. “Trembling with sex”, is how Alan Bennett wonderfully describes Maiden Voyage; and as well as portraying so acutely the passions and nameless longings of a teenage boy, and the strange quirks and brutalities of public school life, it is also a novel that deals with the agony of childhood bereavement – the suffering of a boy who has only recently lost his mother.
When Maiden Voyage was first published in 1943 it was an overnight sensation, and so graphic in its depiction of adolescence and the schooling system that Welch’s publisher – Herbert Read – was forced to seek legal advice. Seventy years on, there is little to shock the modern reader – but more than enough to earn a new generation of fans and admirers. William Burroughs said, “If ever there was a writer who was neglected, it was Denton. He makes you aware of the magic that is right beneath your eyes.”

At the age of twenty, the novelist Denton Welch suffered a cycling accident that left him partially paralyzed; the injuries that he sustained were to leave him in almost constant pain for the rest of his life, as well as bestowing upon him the spinal tuberculosis that would kill him at the age of 33. A Voice Trough a Cloud – increasingly regarded as Welch’s masterpiece – is his account of this accident and the period of convalescence soon after. The unsparing chronicle of the world of a hospital patient – riddled with anger, boredom, almost unbearable stabs of pain and sharp flashes of humour – A Voice Trough a Cloud is, as John Updike wrote in The New Yorker, “An incomparable account of shattered flash and refracted spirit.” His third and final novel, and written at a point when Welch could write for no more than a few minutes a day, A Voice Trough A Cloud is nonetheless possibly one of the most complete accounts of health and mortality; as Edmund White says, it is a book of “long slow dying”, “through which all the world’s strangeness can be perceived.”


Self-effacing ghost said...

I read the opening part of Maiden Voyage (i.e. the public school stuff) a couple of years ago and was seriously impressed and troubled. Later learnt that "Geoffrey Forbes", the narrator's (as I recall) possessive, aggressive, creepy sort-of best friend, was actually Geoffrey Lumsden, who in later years played Captain Square in Dad's Army. Still digesting that.

Jack Eckert said...

Thanks for bringing up Denton Welch. I've been spending the past few weeks reading back through all his books, including the Tartarus Press collection of short stories and fragments that was published a few years ago. He's a good autumn read. Maybe the digital environment will bring him to the attention of a few more fans....


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